Changing The Conversation

Cigarettes are where the realization first dawned. Not the one you’re thinking of. Not the unalterable and horrific truth about what cigarette-smoking can do to you. No, I’m talking about the incredibly simple, yet impossibly hard to accept epiphany that telling people something is bad for them does not mean they will stop doing it. No, not even if you show them incontestable facts and get a legion of serious-looking men in white coats to testify. 

This was the insight that led to one of the most brilliant anti-smoking campaigns of all time, the “Truth” campaign by Crispin Porter + Bogusky. The team there realized that all the talk about the dangers of smoking was actually making it more attractive to the most vulnerable audience – teenagers. Because all teenagers consider themselves immortal (as the Obamacare campaign recently acknowledged with the tag “The Young Invincibles”), the threat of death simply makes smoking cooler: “Look at me, flirting with disaster.”

Instead, the “Truth” campaign shifted its focus to a completely different aspect of the teenage psyche: their rebellion against authority. In a brilliant twist, the campaign took on not smoking, but the tobacco companies — and showed that they were giant, quasi-authority figures bent on manipulating the masses into buying their product. In an instant, an act of bold, James Dean defiance became seen as an obeisance to The Man. 

It was the most successful campaign ever in its category. 

Shifting gears to a whole other category – Jon Steele, planner extraordinary, writes about the strategy behind the legendary Milk Board campaign: every single effort before that tried to persuade people to drink milk because it was good for them. This campaign took a different tack – instead of trying to guilt people into doing what was right, they looked at how the product might actually fulfill a role in people’s lives. And guess what? People missed milk most when they wanted to use it to accompany other foods – a PB&J sandwich maybe, or cookies. So: “Got milk?”

What does all this have to do with the environment? Well, two campaigns that came out in recent months have shown an ability to look beyond the usual moralizing or “green-guilt” arguments and positioned their brands – both cars – as solutions to a different problem, or emblems of a more appealing lifestyle. One of them has garnered more than its fair share of controversy – the commercial for the Cadillac ELR. You know the one: where the preppy suburban monsieur advances an argument for American superiority and drives off in an electric car. 

Now, I’m not going to get into an argument over whether it was an expression of a privileged upper-class mindset. Hey, it’s an expensive car. Who do you think buys them? What Cadillac successfully accomplished here was turning electrics into a fashion and lifestyle statement for non-Birkenstockers, in a much more mainstream way than Tesla did. 

The second ad is for the BMW i3. In it, a teenager takes dad’s car out for a wild ride with his girl, then is caught by his dad sneaking back into the house. The payoff: dad doesn’t realize what he’s done with the car because — it’s electric! The hood isn’t warm! Ah, young love. 

I am sure there will be many more sophisticated arguments for green products. And, of course, in the case of cars, the energy savings argument is key. As it is in the case of LED lighting or solar panels. But people don’t change because it’s the right thing to do, or even the sensible thing. They change because they want to. Our job as marketers is to get them to want to.

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